On Capital Punishment, Troy Davis, and Media Bias

Capital punishment has received a lot of attention in the news these past few weeks, primarily due to the controversial execution of Troy Davis for the murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail. Davis’ execution is controversial because several eyewitnesses at his original trial recanted their testimony and Davis maintained his innocence until his death. This has been used by capital punishment opponents to argue that capital punishment should be ended.

Arguments against Capital Punishment

I oppose capital punishment in general and therefore I opposed Davis’ execution in particular (it is one of the few issues on which I agree with the generally “liberal” viewpoint, though probably for different reasons than most liberals). This does not mean I don’t believe in the effectiveness of harsh punishment in deterring crime or that I believe Troy Davis was innocent. On the contrary, I believe Troy Davis deserved a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. My objection to capital punishment is based on:

  •  A life sentence is necessary and sufficient to keep society safe from criminals who have committed the most heinous crimes while capital punishment is sufficient but not necessary to keep society safe from the criminal.
  • Sentences of life in prison offer a strong deterrent to crime, too (who wants to spend the rest of his life in prison with no chance for release?).
  • I believe that any additional deterrent offered by capital punishment over sentences of life in prison is not significant (the only difference in punishment between a criminal with a life sentence and one who receives the death penalty is that the latter has a shorter life before dying in prison).
  • A life sentence can be rescinded if the convict is later proven innocent while a death penalty cannot be rescinded after it is imposed.

I also object on moral grounds to giving the government the power to end the life of an individual who no longer poses an immediate threat (as opposed to giving the government the power to use lethal force to defend its citizens from, for example, a gunman in the process of trying to kill people).

Using specific cases of criminals (such as Troy Davis) who are claimed to be innocent as an argument to abolish capital punishment is ineffective, especially since there is little evidence that these criminals are actually innocent. In Troy Davis’ case, it is apparent that some opponents of capital punishment read a short (and clearly biased) article on the case (like the one on Huffington Post), anointed themselves armchair judges, declared Davis innocent, concluded that it was a “miscarriage of justice” to execute an “innocent” man, and decided that this was a good (emotional) excuse to argue that capital punishment should be abolished so that this “miscarriage of justice” could never occur again. This “logic” (to use the term loosely) is severely undermined by the fact that Davis’ guilt is not as uncertain as the media (Huffington Post, the New York Times, etc.) would have one believe.

The Troy Davis Case and Media Bias

Search results for “Troy Davis” and similar terms on the Internet are typically just short and often biased articles from the media that give few details on the case, so to be fair it is difficult to find less biased and/or more authoritative sources of information about Davis’ case. Court documents like the District Court documents (H/T HalFrontandCenter) and U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision on the Davis case are the best source of information but they’re difficult to find and quite long (over 100 pages). I admit I haven’t read the documents in their entirety (I just scanned them and read the important parts because I’ve got better things to do than read hundreds of pages about a case spanning two decades), so to that end I found a website covering the Davis case (which helpfully cites pages and quotes from the court documents) and Ann Coulter’s column on the case to be useful (and much shorter) sources of information. While these two sources of information are possibly biased and are less authoritative than the court documents, they are nonetheless useful for quickly finding out information that isn’t reported by the mainstream media (and whatever your opinion on Ann Coulter, she’s a lawyer and thus has more legal expertise than a New York Times reporter). Most importantly, all the articles can be checked against the court documents.

In the New York Times article, the following misleading “facts” are stated:

During the 1991 trial, witnesses testified that Mr. Davis pulled the trigger, but there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Since the original trial, a parade of witnesses have recanted, and new testimony suggested that the prosecution’s main witness might be the killer.

Let’s consider the “parade of witnesses” who recanted (a number would have been nice) and the “new testimony” that the prosecution’s main witness (Red Coles) might be the killer. According to a table on the Davis case website, the witnesses who “recanted” are described as follows:

  1. Antoine Williams “recanted” by saying that he was no longer sure Davis was the shooter. The courts ruled that this change to his testimony was not material to the case, noting that “saying that one cannot remember his prior testimony is different from admitting that it is false” and concluded that Williams’ new testimony could not properly be called a recantation. (District Court decision, pp. 128-129)
  2. Benjamin Gordon originally claimed he did not see who fired the shots. After three post-trial affidavits, Gordon testified that he saw Red Coles shoot MacPhail. However, District Court Judge Moore noted that “the only explanation for Mr. Gordon’s ever-evolving testimony is that it changes to reflect whatever details he believes are necessary to secure Mr. Davis’s release. Therefore, his testimony is not credible.” (District Court decision, p. 158). Just to be clear, Gordon’s recantation is not credible (especially when one considers the fact that it conflicts with other witnesses).
  3. Dorothy Ferrell initially testified that Davis shot MacPhail, but now claims in an affidavit she didn’t know who shot MacPhail and that her testimony was coerced. However, Davis neglected to call her to re-testify (despite the fact that she was present in the courthouse), which the District Court judge noted “strongly suggests his belief that this recantation would not have held up under cross-examination” and that therefore “the recantation holds very little weight”. (District Court decision, pp. 145-146)
  4. Larry Young, who was assaulted by either Davis or Red Coles, testified at trial that he was probably assaulted by Davis, but later claimed in an affidavit that he couldn’t remember who assaulted him and that his testimony was coerced. Like Dorothy Ferrell, Young was not called by Davis to re-testify.
  5. Darrell Collins originally testified that Davis was wearing a white shirt (the shooter was said to be wearing a white shirt) and assaulted Larry Young, but later testified that he didn’t know who assaulted Young and only implicated Davis because of police coercion. Judge Moore ruled that Collins’ new testimony was “neither credible nor a full recantation” and that the part of Collins’ original testimony that was not recanted “still provides significant evidence of Mr. Davis’s guilt by placing him in the white shirt”. (District Court decision, p. 138)
  6. Harriet Murray testified at trial that she saw Davis hit Larry Young and shoot MacPhail. Her “recantation” was an unsigned, unsworn affidavit claiming that the same man who chased Young also shot MacPhail. She was unable to re-testify or sign her affidavit because she was already deceased. The 11th Circuit ruled “we afford [the affidavit] precious little weight, if any” (11th Circuit decision, p. 32). Judge Moore ruled the affidavit “does not contain any direct recantation, any admission that Ms. Murray lied under oath, or even a statement that Ms. Murray was aware that her affidavit varied from her trial testimony” (District Court decision, p. 141) and that it was “valueless to Mr. Davis’s showing” (p. 143).
  7. Red Coles (the New York Times claims he was the prosecution’s “main witness” and “might be the killer”) testified at trial that he ran away from the altercation with Larry Young and when MacPhail approached, and that he heard a total of three gunshots. This conflicted with Davis’ testimony at his trial (Davis claimed Coles assaulted Young while Coles claimed Davis was the assailant). Davis did not call Coles to re-testify, and the 11th Circuit ruled that “even if we were to wholly discount Coles’s testimony, Davis’s trial testimony still squarely conflicts with the testimony of various witnesses, including Sanders, Murray, and even Larry Young, who testified that the only man who spoke that night was the one arguing with him, while Davis testified that he twice told Coles to stop bothering the man” (11th Circuit decision, p. 33).

The New York Times would have its readers believe that most of the eyewitnesses recanted, yet the court documents show significant problems with most of these “recantations” — these include “recantations” that were not material to the case (Antoine Williams’), were not credible because the eyewitness kept changing his story (Benjamin Gordon’s), or were considered “valueless” on the grounds that the “recantation” was an unsworn, unsigned affidavit from a deceased eyewitness (Harriet Murray’s). The other eyewitnesses who recanted were not called to re-testify by Davis, which suspiciously suggests that Davis believed they “would not have held up under cross-examination”.

The eyewitnesses who didn’t recant (Monte Holmes and Stephen Sanders) both specifically identified Davis as the man who shot MacPhail. Sanders’ confidence in his ability to correctly identify Davis was due to the fact that, as he explained it, “you don’t forget someone that stands over and shoots someone” (11th Circuit Court decision, p. 31). The 11th Circuit Court summarized the “recantations” that the New York Times claimed “suggested that [Coles] might be the killer” as follows:

All told, the testimony by Murray and Sanders remains; the two other eyewitnesses do not now implicate anyone, much less Coles; Coles continues to implicate Davis; and the testimony of Larry Young and Valerie Coles still collides with Davis’s. When we view all of this evidence as a whole, we cannot honestly say that Davis can establish by clear and convincing evidence that a jury would not have found him guilty of Officer MacPhail’s murder. (p. 33)

The eyewitnesses who didn’t recant are the most reliable since they have not changed their stories (as opposed to Benjamin Gordon, for example, who has changed his story multiple times). The reliability of the eyewitnesses who recanted is questionable: if they could be easily convinced to lie under oath (at a trial where the defendant’s life is at stake!) then it shouldn’t be difficult for Davis and his defense lawyers to convince them to lie after the trial.

There is more truth to the New York Times’ “no physical evidence” claim, but this too is misleading. For one thing, as Ann Coulter points out:

It’s true that the bulk of the evidence against Davis was eyewitness testimony. That tends to happen when you shoot someone in a busy Burger King parking lot.

Unfortunately, the gun used to kill MacPhail was never found, so without that piece of physical evidence the prosecution had to rely more on eyewitness testimony. The fact that the killer managed to dispose of the gun does not mean there isn’t enough evidence to convict him, though, since there so many eyewitnesses (including several who identified the shooter and didn’t recant).

Although the murder weapon was never found, there was some physical evidence — shell casings from the shooting, which may have matched shell casings at an earlier shooting in Cloverdale that Davis was alleged to be guilty of (District Court decision, p. 164). This evidence is admittedly quite weak by itself, but it’s not true that there was “no physical evidence” and moreover this physical evidence can be considered in conjunction with the eyewitness testimony available. Davis’ trial jury and the judges who heard his case afterward weighed this weak physical evidence along with eyewitness testimony and concluded that Davis was the murderer of MacPhail.

Using Troy Davis to argue against capital punishment

Given the strength of the case against Troy Davis and the brutality of the crime he was found guilty of, it makes little sense to use his case to argue against capital punishment. Using a case where a defendant was convicted but actually exonerated after the trial (e.g. by new DNA evidence not available at the trial) would provide a stronger argument, but this too is a relatively weak argument since imprisoning an innocent man for life is nearly as bad as executing him. Nonetheless, some people (such as Debbie Hines, who wrote the Huffington Post article) actually view the Troy Davis case as a good example to argue against capital punishment. Although I oppose capital punishment, the weakness of this argument (I will use hers as a typical example) is apparent even to me. Her main use of the Troy Davis case to argue against capital punishment, for example, is:

Since his conviction in 1991 of killing officer McPhail in 1989, 7 of the 9 witnesses have come forward to recant their testimony with allegations that one of the witnesses was the actual killer. But, this was not enough to convince the Georgia court system, the Georgia Board of Parole and Pardons, Larry Chisolm, Chatham County’s first African American district attorney or the Supreme Court of his innocence or to spare his life. Troy maintained his innocence up to the time of his execution, even requesting to give a lie detector test which was denied.

Although Hines is apparently a lawyer, she was not honest enough to explain the nature and problems of the “recantations” to her readers (or maybe she didn’t even read the court documents). In any case, she practically makes the case for Troy Davis’ guilt by listing all the courts that remained unconvinced of Davis’ innocence despite knowledge of the seven “recantations”. She balances all these courts against the fact that Davis “maintained his innocence” as if a convicted murderer’s insistence on his innocence (would a murderer possibly lie to avoid death?) is sufficient to discredit the Georgia court system.

Hines’ argument fails even more spectacularly later in her article:

The death penalty has not been a deterrent to crime, is expensive, racially biased and unfair. Taxpayers spend millions on a failed system. One Maryland commission found that pursuing a death penalty case is three times more expensive to taxpayers than pursuing a non-capital punishment case. In death sentences, almost half of those receiving the death penalty are black. The prison population is over 40 percent black men while black men make up only 6 percent of the population.

The first problem with Hines’ argument is that she cites no evidence for the unintuitive assertion that the death penalty has not been a deterrent to crime (ironic, since she was just complaining about the supposed lack of evidence against Troy Davis). The second problem is that she complains that the death penalty is expensive; this too is a weak argument since law enforcement, the justice system, and prison maintenance are all expensive, but no one would argue that we should end these systems just to save some money. The most ridiculous argument she uses is that capital punishment is “racially biased and unfair”; for one thing, she can hardly use Troy Davis as an example of someone unfairly convicted by such a “racially biased” system since he was convicted by a majority black jury and Hines admits that the district attorney is black. More generally, the fact that black men are over-represented in the prison population and among those receiving the death penalty does not in itself show that capital punishment is racially biased or unfair since there could be other causes for this over-representation (I suppose Hines would be shocked to find out that black men are even more over-represented in the NBA, and would of course demand that the NBA be dismantled for being racially biased). Even if Hines did prove that capital punishment is racially biased, her solution to abolish capital punishment would not solve the root of the problem: that the justice system itself would in that case be racially biased. Abolishing capital punishment in a racially biased justice system would simply cause blacks to be unjustly thrown into prison for the rest of their lives due to their race.

There are good reasons to oppose capital punishment, but unfortunately many of the popular arguments against it are exceptionally weak. Those who use these weak arguments hurt their own cause rather than strengthen it, especially when they use convicted murderers like Troy Davis as part of their case. And although the short, biased media articles on such cases may help “prove” these murderers’ innocence in the court of public opinion, no real court will be persuaded by such poor arguments (and rightfully so).

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One thought on “On Capital Punishment, Troy Davis, and Media Bias

  1. Pingback: Final Thoughts on the Troy Davis Case « Front and Center

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